Of all the voices to fill the hills of Shakori this fall, there is one that will shine as bright as the sun: SunQueen Kelcey and the Soular Flares.
SunQueen Kelcey has been gifted with a sensual voice that is drenched with vintage soul. Her phrasing dances on top of the Soular Flares’ jazz rhythms and the result makes you want to dance, just as much as it makes you want to hold onto someone that you love.
A staple of the Greensboro music scene, she won a 2017 Bloc Award as the Best R&B Artist of the Year. She explores issues of self love, social justice, and sexual freedom in her music that at once, will make you laugh, blush, and shake your head in affirmation.
We sat down and talked for a bit about her music, her life, and what we can expect from the band’s Shakori Hills debut. With new music in the works, SunQueen Kelcey is the kind of light that we need right now.
Get a taste of her soul with this 2019 submission to the NPR Tiny Desk Contest, or check out her website, and read below for some highlights from our conversation.
Krysten Heberly: How long have you been playing and creating music and what drew you to it?
SunQueen Kelcey: I’ve been playing guitar for maybe eight years now. I’ve been creating my own music for 8 years too. What drew me to it was my personal experiences. I’ve always loved music, I think music is the connection to everyone that we have.
Ever since I was young, it started off as me shouting, thinking that it sounded good when I was a little girl, but when I turned ten, it actually started to sound good. I started writing poems, and I was doing poetry, I wasn’t really performing or anything but I had journals full of it. Then I joined the choirs when I joined middle school and high school, and I fell in love with choral ensemble and just creating music on my own.
KH: Did you go to college, or did you start pursuing music after that?
SQK: Oh good question! So I went to college for 3 years, I was pursuing something so unrelated to music. I was majoring in BIology, I was on a track to do pre-med, and I started flunking out. I just couldn’t concentrate, I was going through a lot of things, I was in a very terrible relationship, and I was just not focused. Plus I think I was just in the wrong lane. So I went for three years, I got kicked out for six months, and then they told me I could come back and I was like nah, fuck it. I have been thrown into the real world and I’d just like to start working and doing music.
KH: It sounds like you’re in a lot better place because of it.
SQK: I am! Y’know, I struggled a lot, but I know that it was all for a great reason, because I never would have imagined that I would be right here. I’ve always loved and wanted to perform music, but I didn’t think it was possible until I started doing it. It’s been a long time coming and I have a ways to go, but shit I am loving it, and you are right.
KH: It’s inspiring, honestly.
SQK: Thank you! I think everyone has their stories about it too. Mine is a little tricky, but y’know.
KH: Where did you come up with the name SunQueen Kelcey and the Soular Flares?
SQK: So I wrote this song called Queen of the Sun which is on my first album. It talks about the power and the impact that Black women have on humanity. When I started to perform it, it was just me and my guitar, and it was a very intimate setting everywhere I would go. Then one time I performed it in front of this open mic, and one of my friends, he called me SunQueen after that. And when he started calling me SunQueen, everyone started calling me SunQueen. And I had been looking for a stage name for a long time. It just fit ya’know? When people caught on like that, I thought ‘maybe it should just be like that.’ I’m the epitome of that song, I am a Black woman, I do have an impact on some of the people in my life, and I know the struggle of being Black and being in the world today. So why not keep that name. The Soular Flares came from me just being so interested in how the sun works. The solar flare is like an eruption of energy, just a burst of energy. I think of it as the sun’s mood swing and the way that the sun expresses itself. When I formed the band for my music, I said ‘everyone has their own personality, we’re all full of fire, we’re all full of a dynamic energy that we bring to the stage.’ SunQueen and the Soular Flares seemed to fit so well.
KH: Who are the Soular Flares?
SQK: I have my homegirl Tai, she is the keyboardist, my friend Malcolm who is one of the guitarists, Darrien who is one of the bassists, Colin, he’s been with me since I started performing in Greensboro and we’ve known each other for about eight years. He’s one of the guitarists as well.
KH: Have you been performing with everyone for a couple of years now?
SQK: Yeah, collectively I think I’ve been performing with everyone for two years now. Other people I’ve known, we’ve done other bands together and performed in other shows, but yeah collectively as the Soular Flares, it’s been about two years.
KH: It sounds like you’ve become kind of a little family.
SQK: Yes! They are my brothers and my sister, and we definitely look out for each other. Like I said, it’s so many different personalities in this band, but when we’re together for shows and for practice, we’re inseparable. I definitely feed off of their energy and vice versa, and we just have fun together.
KH: That’s really what it’s all about. So you talk a lot about social justice being a big part of your music. Why is that?
SQK: I really like to write about my experience, the way I walk through life. When I was growing up, I would hear stories that my mom would tell about living in some of the very rural parts of NC like Candor, Bisko, those parts of Montgomery County. And her being a Black woman from a Black family, she used to experience a lot of racism out there. Even today, being Black in this world, we experience a lot of racism. And I just love to talk about it, and to give those voices of the people who have been highly marginalized out here. Just the chance to say what they want to say. Whether it’s my experience or someone else’s experience, I just want to make sure I give a voice to that. So that’s part of the whole social justice thing.
KH: You also talk a lot about body positivity. Why is that important to you?
SQK: The self love that comes from me…I think I’m talking about self love coming more from my experience of body positivity, and just learning to accept my body, learning to accept other bodies, and making this idea of body neutrality. I think that everyone deserves to feel comfortable in their own skin and to be comfortable in who they are. I think weight is one of those stigmas that we struggle with. People are afraid to eat, people are afraid to wear certain things. People are afraid to even walk into a place because they think they are unworthy of taking up space. So I’ve tried to incorporate the self- love into every show that I do, and with everyone that I meet.
I want people to understand that they deserve and are worthy of love. You should be able to take care of yourself for free. We all need that equity, that equality. We should be able to wake up every day and have everything that we need to be successful and to live a happy and healthy life.
So that’s where the self-love comes from. I’ve struggled with my weight for most of my life, I’ve always been a thick girl, and y’know, when I was at my smallest, those would be the times when I was the most unhappy, the most depressed. Now I’m at one of my heavier weights, and I feel fucking great! I feel amazing, and i have this glow about me that people notice, and that really speaks a lot to how my journey was. It was rough, it took a lot out of me, but through the years when I just learned to accept the way things were and to just work on my mental health first, that’s when I really started to shine.
KH: Acceptance is such a thing to build towards.
SQK: It is. And I think that people get the whole body positivity thing mixed up with people just loving every bit about their body, and just being happy all the time, but it’s not like that. It’s about respect, and learning to be grateful for your body and to take care of your body. You can be a thick girl and work out, eat your greens, eat your vegetables, drink water, you can do all of that and still be thick, but everyone’s body is different. We all store and use nutrients differently. So we’re all gonna look different, and I think that the media pushes us to want to look like something that we just can’t look like without restriction and self-hate. I try to make sure that people understand that those things aren’t realistic…
KH: You mentioned body neutrality, what does that mean to you?
SQK: That means to accept the way that the body is, and that you should accept the way that other bodies look too, especially when you know what your body can do and what it’s capable of. We wake up every day, our heart never stops beating, we make it through the hardest parts of our life, and there is no point in judging someone for the way that they look. So body neutrality is more like accept and normalize that people’s bodies look different. There are fat people, there are tall people, there are small people, everyone looks different. There are skinny people, there are people with disabilities, and people with different skin tones and things that they may not love about themselves.
KH: So why is your music important to you?
SQK: It’s important to me because it’s the way that I connect to everyone around me. I feel like you could make a connection without music, but there’s just something about it that is like a metaphysical connection that you could have with somebody.
Music just has this kind of energy about it. It creates these kinds of bonds that when you see somebody in a bar and y’all start singing, you know all the words, you’re just like ‘Oh this is my soul sister, soul brother.’ Music just does that for people. You could be complete strangers, and because you know the same song you can relate to it, you can cry to it, it just brings people together. I think that I can make an even stronger connection when I perform. I think that’s why it’s important. I love making people feel good, I love seeing people enjoy themselves. You’re not harming anybody, so let’s make magic!
KH: As far as Shakori Hills, what can fans expect from you there?
SQK: They can expect a little bit of twerking, they can expect me to teach them some mantras about self love, and they can expect some new music, because we have some time to get that setlist tight and ready before we come out. I just can’t wait! God, I’m so excited!